Note: This post was written several days ago as we were coming into Chicago. I wasn’t able to post it then because the mobile hotspot, although wonderful to have, is beyond slow and sometimes can’t pick up any signal at all. (Thus my slow response to some comments, Facebook posts and emails — apologies!) Despite now being on the second leg of the Amtrak part of the trip, I decided to post as written. 

Well, now that the first Amtrak leg of the trip is (almost) under our belts, I think I can give a pretty fair assessment of how they did. We’ll start with the Albany train station:

The Albany train station is actually the Albany-Rensselear train station, a fact that I didn’t know. It also happens to be a completely useless and unnecessary fact for our purposes. We’ll move on.

Like South Station in Boston, it’s pretty much confined to one big room; the room isn’t nearly as big as South Station’s, though, which meant that we were o.k. letting Lucy and Will wander around a bit on their own. [Um, oops – Mom, you shouldn’t have read that part. Now that you have, though…] Not wander wander – just go on to the bathroom or to the convenience store or to the snack shop on their own. [Um, that probably made things worse.] O.k. So only Lucy went to the bathroom on her own; Lord knows, if Will can’t manage to go into the bathroom at home on his own because he doesn’t like being alone, do you really think he’d head into the Men’s Room solo? Of course not. That didn’t stop him, however, for just taking off at a moment that Kelley was off on a jaunt of his own (moms and dads jaunt, they don’t go to the bathroom; that would be indelicate to talk about; perhaps we should just whisper, >bathroom<. O.k. Done.) Anyway, I had my hands full with James while Lucy and Will appeared to be perfectly fine. Except then all of a sudden Will mumbled something – or maybe it was that he was off and running so fast that the wind had to carry his voice back to me – and he was off. As it turns out, he was only going to the one part of the station that wasn’t visible to me because of the proximity of the ticket desk to where we were: the board that was telling us our train was on time when it clearly wasn’t. This made Will quite irritated. “It’s supposed to leave at 7:05. How long are we going to have to wait?

Well, Will, we’re going to have to wait as long as we need to wait because, (say it with me now): The trains run when the trains run.

“But it was supposed to leave 15 minutes AGO.”

“Yes, Will, I too am aware of the time difference between now and when the train was supposed to leave as you have been making us aware of it since 7:00 when we weren’t boarding even though they told us we’d board 10 minutes before.” [Except it wasn’t nearly that calm. And it also wasn’t right then because, as previously mentioned, Will was gone with the wind.]

Happily, we had nice, dry-humor type red caps – except without the red caps, as you can see by the picture – who

This man has no red cap.

were helping us with all of our luggage and being nice to us and telling us what the latest news was about the train’s arrival (i.e., that there was no news, but still, they were nice about it). (Amazing what tipping a guy $15 to bring our bags in from the parking lot to the train station will get you!) When the train finally did arrive, the lead red cap guy not only came over to us to tell us that he needed to take the lady in the wheelchair down first (no sleeper car for her = no reserved seats; we were happy to oblige) but that he’d be back for us. And, not only did he come back for us as promised, but he loudly and assuredly pushed his way through the restless crowd surging towards the elevator because we’re sleeper car people and we get to go first.

To be honest, I couldn’t have cared less about going on first – heck, we had rooms assigned to us and everything. As long as I knew that the train wasn’t going to leave without us, I didn’t mind waiting. That said, I also didn’t mind getting Will and Lucy and James onto the train and out of our waiting (and waiting, and waiting…) area. Thankfully, I was holding adorable baby James kind of like a masthead, so all the people who were annoyed by the special treatment us sleeper folk were getting were then lulled into happiness by the cute smiling baby. Except for the crazy lady who pushed her way right behind us (mumbling, “I just need to pass out my pamphlets” – oh dear), who, as Kelley likes to say in Boston traffic, used her blockers, i.e., us, and got herself on that elevator too.

Happy children in the dining car (even before dinner arrived)

What I did particularly like about being part of the ‘sleeper car’ special people was that they also let us go on the dining car first for our dinner. Given that it was already around 8:45 p.m., I’m not sure that dinner is the exact name for it. ‘Late night snack’ might be more appropriate. Kudos for us, though, that we for once realized that, not only did “train not on time” = “dinner not on time,” but we even acted upon it and got Lucy and Will macaroni and cheese at the train station for dinner. (Bonus: turns out James likes mac and cheese, too! Good to know for those occasions when we forget to bring his baby food. Not that we’re those kinds of parents or anything.) The down side to that was that they weren’t very hungry by the time we got to eat; the up side, however, was that they weren’t nearly as cranky as they (o.k., we) have the ability to be.

Happy Daddy and Baby James

Dinner turned out to be, well, not bad. No steak, despite it being on the menu because, apparently, “The fumes from cooking it will kill the chef and then you,” according to the waiter – which makes me wonder why it’s on the menu other than just to say, “Psych!” but that’s neither here nor there. The roasted chicken wasn’t half bad, though, and the mashed potatoes were the exact kind of processed scoop ‘o potatoes that qualifies for me as excellent. Will’s pizza was the standard kids’ menu pizza fare, so not bad; Lucy’s chicken fingers, though… I wouldn’t recommend them.

Other downsides were that the car was, literally, arctic. Also, we had to walk through about 7 cars of very unhappy non-special-sleeper-car people who were also hungry and wanting the dining car but had to wait for us to go first. (Honestly, if I hadn’t been waiting with three children for over two hours I might have felt worse. I also might have felt worse if I weren’t normally one of the non-special people. Dear Reader, however, I did not.) And at some point midway through dinner, Will’s excitement about being on a train turned into concern that the train was so wobbly. (“Did they do a practice run before this?” Uh, yes, Will. They do this trip every single day.) And then Lucy said that she couldn’t stop thinking about the picture of a burned out Amtrak car that had been on the front page of the Portland newspaper the morning before with the headline “We Were Surrounded By Flames.” (“Are you sure they did a practice run, Mommy????”) Which of course made me have to remind myself not to panic – holygoodlordtheyneverdidapracticerunthattaughtthemhowtodrivethroughawalloflfames – and just say, we’ll be fine (while looking desperately for wood to knock on). (Of course, it just occurred to me that if we did have to drive through a wall of flames wood would be absolutely no help at all. Still, hoping that knocking on metal has the same effect.)

Oh, and the waiter forgot to bring the rolls.

[Editor’s note: Since George did point out that my postings on Facebook so far have not done anything to suggest a reason that traveling by Amtrak is in any way desired, please see the photo below for the view from our dining car.]

Sunset somewhere west of Albany

The Room(ette)s

Enough about the food! What you really want to know is about the rooms, right?

The roomettes are definitely more ‘ette’ than ‘room.’ I’d say that the rooms are about 6′ long by 4′ wide. Actually, I have no idea if that’s accurate because I have no concept of measurement. But the two seats that face each other stretch out into a bed and I think someone about a foot taller than me could lie on it. Also, I’m sitting and looking at Lucy and I think that she might be able to lie with her head at the window and her feet slightly out the door. Then again, I’m not really sure how tall she is either so that might not help much. What I can say with absolute certainty is that they are small. (Originally, we had planned on just getting one roomette for the family. Although the Amtrak guy didn’t laugh out loud when Kelley said that, he did suggest we should consider two. Thank you, Amtrak guy.) I am missing Kelley and James very much right now as they sit in their room across the hall and down one; but when Kelley and I are in the same room I get irritated immediately because of the lack of space (not because of Kelley himself, but because two non-petite adults in one of these rooms don’t work out so well). And did you happen to see the picture I posted of our bags? Although we did check the big suitcases, even with the extra little storage bay up across from the upper berth it’s not nearly enough.

The upper berth is actually on a track that allows it to stay even more upper than for sleeping so that the two people sitting in the room aren’t entirely claustrophobic when it’s not down. To be honest, at 4’11”, it didn’t feel that much worse when it was down. Plus, when it’s down it means someone else is up there, which frees up some space down below.

There’s a table that folds out between the two seats (and has a checkerboard on it – nice touch), that is both not big enough and too big at the same time. Funny how that works. It’s also a hunk of metal – not a good thing for James to bonk his head on. And then there’s the >bathroom< area.

The >bathroom< area is directly next to the seating/sleeping area. In fact, you’ll see from the pictures below that there is little-to-no space between them. Not the most sanitary or comfortable set-up as far as I’m concerned. (And if you’re traveling with a companion you better be sure that that’s someone you’re very close to. Because you’ll either be getting a lot closer soon, or one or the other of you will be spending some time out in the narrow hallway over the course of the trip.) I also wouldn’t suggest having the cheesecake for dessert if you’ve got a bit of the lactose intolerance. Or, under any circumstances, the chicken fingers.

Fold-out sink in Amtrak Viewliner sleeper cabin.

The fold-out sink is quite cute – that’s my favorite part I think – although the cute little cups for water aren’t bad either. I like how there’s no drain until you actually tilt the sink back up into it’s compartment. At the same time, I wish I had noticed that part before spending a full minute trying to figure out what to do with all the water before tipping the sink back up to where it was supposed to go. Thanks to Lucy, I finally figured out that the holes at the back of the sink were what the water was supposed to drain into. The one complaint sinkwise is that that’s also where the outlet is. It seems to me that there are other places for an outlet to go other than near the main water source of the room, but that’s just me.

Oh, dear. I’m sure I could go on for even more time (just realized I never mentioned the back of the toilet that falls onto you when you’re, um, jaunting), but, Chicago is coming up soon. So if you’ll excuse me…

[I’ve had some requests for more photos from the roomettes. Because my connectivity is such a bitch at the moment, I’ll hold off on posting until I’m somewhere that posting pictures is easier; and I’ll probably post to Flickr so that the album is more viewable. I’ll post a link from here, though, once they’re up.]

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Or, rather, Albany. (“Albeenie” is what Will used to call it when he was too young to be able to pronounce it correctly. He is now fully capable of pronouncing it correctly, but doesn’t. I’m not sure if that’s deliberate on his part, or because we haven’t really corrected him because it’s pretty cute. I’m sorry to say that I think it’s the latter. Note to self: let him know before he, say, tries to run as a senator from New York.)

Anyway, here we are, getting on the Mass Pike — nope, make that, I-90, as we have just crossed the state line into NY, our 4th state of the day — so that we can get on the train in Albany. Why, you ask, would we take the train from Albany when we have a lovely train station all of our own in Boston? Well, because Amtrak decided to begin doing trackwork between Boston and Albany on July 9. We found this out by printing out our itinerary and noticing that the starting station had been changed to Albany. When Kelley called to say that a mistake had been made, they said, Why, no, no mistake. We changed that for you because of the trackwork. We’re going to bus you from South Station to Albany instead.

To which, of course, we said, no thanks. It’s, let’s just call it exciting, enough to take three kids, ourselves, and all of our crap to Albany in a car. Can you imagine us doing this on a bus? Can you imagine how many friends we’d make over the course of the three-hour trip? Yeah. Me too. Thus the drive to Albany on our own.

Well, actually, not quite on our own. Thanks to Wendy, of Wendy Cow House fame, (a.k.a. Kelley’s mom), we are able to drive the van to Albany and then have her drive it back to her house in the Berkshires and leave it there for the next several weeks. This will also mean that, on our return trip, we’ll be able to just get off the train in Albany rather than have to get off in Boston and then turn around and drive back to the Berkshires and upstate NY for the final week of the trip. Given that little bit of convenience, it’s kind of hard to be overly aggravated about the change of departure. However, it does remind me of the way the trains run in Italy. “Soppressato!” Or whatever the correct way of spelling it is. No matter how you spell it, though, it means the same thing: the trains run when the trains run. What are you going to do about it? Nothing. Exactly. So sit down, relax, and have a drink. (That sounds a lot better in Italian.)

Because of the travel time, today has been pretty low-key. We did manage to get out of Portland on time this morning. We even managed to get in a round of mini-golf at Pirate’s Cove in Old Orchard Beach, ME. For those of you familiar with the Pirate’s Cove on Cape Cod, it’s pretty much deja vu all over again, albeit a whole lot dinkier. I got the feeling that this was the first location they had and then they did it again, but better, on Cape Cod. The first few holes felt identical to the ones on the Cape, there’s even a lagoon in front. No pirate ship, though, and, thankfully, no “Fire at will!” (For those of you who don’t know, Will thought this was, “Fire at Will!” It took us the first four or five years of his existence to figure out why he resisted going there all the time.) It was also relegated to a back street in the town, which meant that there was no breeze to speak of. (To be honest, I’m getting a little tired of the feeling of sweat running down my back. I guess heading to, say, Arizona, isn’t the best idea, considering.) We had gotten there right at 9:15 a.m., though, so we were able to do most of it before it got too hot, and, happily, before the two camp vans showed up with 30 6-8 year olds. I would have liked to spend a little more time in Old Orchard Beach itself — I’d never really heard much about it; it has quite the kitsch-yet-cute air about it, what with its amusement park on the beach and various shore-type clam shacks, motels, etc. As it turns out, my parents spent some time there back in the day. It is just this moment occurring to me that they decided not to take us there, despite my mom saying that she kind of liked it. Hmmm. What gives, Mom? O.k., o.k. I suppose the fact that you took us to places like California and Europe makes up for it.

My one regret of the day was that we didn’t take the opportunity to dip our toes in the Atlantic, given that we very much expect to do that very thing in the Pacific in another couple of weeks. However, on our sunset cruise the other night (did I mention that? I think I did not; mea culpa), we did get far enough into Casco Bay that there was nothing between us and Portugal except the Atlantic Ocean. I think that that’s kind of cool. Check it out:

Portugal, six days ahead.

O.k. We’re coming up on the train station so I’d better sign off for now. I’m both anxious and excited for the evening ahead. It’s been a long time since I spent the night on a train — over thirty years, I guess — and I’ve never been in a roomette. My parents tell me that the service is much different than it used to be — I have romantic memories of porters and white-coat waiters. (Um, the white-coat waiter part might have been part of a dream. Or a movie. Like maybe Murder on the Orient Express. Let’s not be repeating that one!) We will soon see!

This whole blogging thing is going to be harder than I thought! Not only is it tough to find the time to write things down, it’s even harder to remember what actually happened. How, you might ask, is it that hard to remember what I did today, much less yesterday? I’m getting old. That’s the only thing I can tell you. Well, that and being bombarded by various children’s requests and requirements. It’s wearing down my brain. So before I forget…

With Kelley in a session all morning yesterday, the kids and I hung out with my parents and Jess who, as you saw from yesterday’s pictures, have joined us for the Portland, ME, part of this trip. Thanks to a suggestion of the people organizing the conference, I signed Lucy and Will up for some of LL Bean’s Discovery School classes. These are short 1.5 hour courses on various outdoorsy activities. A very nice thing is that kids as young as 8 can take part, depending on which class it is. That worked quite amazingly well for Lucy and Jess and the Archery class.

Doesn't Lucy look awesome? Thanks, Jess, for the great photo!

Sadly for all of us, it did not work out quite so well for Will. The LL Bean marketing folks and the LL Bean Discovery School folks don’t seem to be quite on the same page. I might not have even done the archery class if I hadn’t seen the flyfishing class they offered — and for kids as young as 8. Fantastic! However, once we got there it became clear that they didn’t actually do fishing — it was flycasting instead. Although it’s possible that he might have ended up having a good time, what he really wanted to do was fish. Casting wasn’t going to cut it.

I’ll spare you the details of how annoying it was to have everyone look at me like I was crazy when I expressed some confusion about the fishing vs. casting thing. (For a fisherman, yes, I realize that the difference is quite clear. But for those of us fishing-novices, when you see a class called “flyfishing,” call me crazy, but you expect fishing to be involved.) Thanks to modern-day technology, my mom was able to locate a miniature golf course 4.9 miles away from Freeport in Brunswick, ME. Hooray! Plenty of time to get out there, play a quick round, and get back in time to pick up Lucy and Jess.

Plenty of time, that is, if Brunswick were actually 4.9 miles from Freeport as opposed to around 12. And, as I have

Uninspiring mini-golf course

learned over the past few days, 12 miles in Maine is a good 20 minute ride minimum. Details, details. We got ourselves out to Brunswick and found the mini-golf that looked none-too-confidenct inspiring, but that ended up being quite lovely. (Gotta love well kept up, air conditioned offices with bathrooms on the inside, friendly people, and, to top it off, crunchy cheetos that can be purchased for 50 cents.

I do have to say how incredibly wonderful my parents are, as they were game to play 18 rounds of mini-golf in the humid, sunny, high-80s weather with Will, especially as I was out of the picture for at least the first 7 holes, thanks to needing to exchange the stroller for the baby carrier and, along the way, deal with a blow-out diaper. Always fun. I also have to say how great Jessica was, because knowing that she and Lucy were hanging out made me not stress quite as much about getting back to Freeport a full hour after she and Lucy had finished. Luckily, Lucy has her stash of cash, so she was able to buy herself lunch (and chips and ice cream and soda) while waiting. Of course, one of the first things she said was, “Why did Will get to play mini-golf and I didn’t?” which wasn’t exactly what I’d been thinking at the time. Perhaps if we were another day or so into the trip, I might have had to give her the line my parents used to give me: “Because we love him best.” (Which I of course have to say isn’t true, just in case Lucy reads this one day. [So, Lucy, if you’re reading, THAT ISN’T TRUE.) Since we are only two days in, though, I managed to just smile and calmly explain that it was because Will’s class didn’t work out for him and he couldn’t do archery. To which she then proceeded to tell me all the reasons he could have done archery, but merely chose not to. Sigh. Teenagerdom, here we come.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around Portland and, to Kelley’s dismay, visiting gift shops. We did make it to the Portland Lobster Co. (where we had attempted to have dinner the night before but couldn’t find a table) for an early dinner, where we found that the clam chowder wasn’t nearly as good as it had been at DeMillo’s the night before. They did, however, allow us to have lobster rolls at dinner time so that was a plus for Mom and me. They were also quite noisy, being open air and on the pier, and had coasters — a plus for James, not to mention all the diners who had the pleasure of our company.

We rounded out the evening with a lovely sunset cruise. We didn’t actually see the sunset quite so much thanks to the clouds, but it was really nice to be out on the water (especially on such a ridiculously hot day) and see Portland from that viewpoint. Plus Jessica got another awesome photo of one of my kids, this time Will:

Tomorrow we begin our second leg of the journey with an early start so that we can take a Pirate’s Cove detour but still make it to board our train at Albany on time, around 7 p.m. And then on to Chicago.

I’ll try to post tomorrow about today’s activities. Wish me luck — our drive to Albany is the first time I’ll get to try out the hotspot that Kelley spent hours working with various Verizon reps to activate. If it doesn’t work, you might be able to hear my screams all the way in Boston. If it does work, though, I’ll be able to bring you up to speed on today’s activities and maybe even clear out my inbox enough to begin receiving emails again. Signing off until then…

Kelley’s at a session right now (we started the trip in Portland because of a conference Kelley had to attend), my parents are enjoying a few child-free moments (they had Will as a sleepover guest in their room last night), and Lucy is sleeping in in the room she shared with Jess. I thought I’d take this opportunity to post a few pictures from yesterday.

Pit stop for diaper change (not quite out of MA yet):

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Surprisingly, Mom, Dad, and Jess beat us to Portland. Here they are, having a nice, relaxing drink before chaos descends:

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Chaos descends:

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Ms. World Traveler, the mist organized of the bunch of us:

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Holy good lord (aka what happens when there isn’t time for a reckoning of the bags before leaving the house:

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James’ first hotel stay:

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Ready for anything:

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Day Two, here we come:

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Well, it wasn’t quite as smooth a departure as we would have liked, and it was certainly a lot later than planned (11 a.m.? It was a nice thought, I suppose.) but we are off.

Of course, we’re not exactly on the road yet. Library books needed to be returned and gas needed to be gotten. We also have to get a sim card for the mifi/hotspot/whatever-you-want-to-call-it (a.k.a. the device that was responsible for taking up an hour of this morning’s precious time), as it apparently did not come with it. Kelley is now about to do battle with the Verizon folks in Coolidge Corner with the end result hopefully being that we will have a functioning hotspot for the rest of this journey.

So here we are sitting in the car, Lucy with her book, Will with his DS, James babbling away, and me posting from my phone. We have gone a whole blissful minute without any arguments or complaints, something that will mo doubt change soon.

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Happily, our first leg is only to Portland, ME, so the fact that we never did our can-we-carry-the-bags-we-need-to-carry assessment can be addressed there. We also are making a brief stop at Wendy’s Cow House — also the penultimate stop of our trip (where, incidentally, the car will be for the next three weeks), which means that any superfluous crap (as opposed to your regular run-of-the-mill crap) can be dropped off there.

Alas, our moment of content has passed. Time to calm the natives…

I am sitting outside of South Station writing this post — not posting it, mind you, as there is no wireless connection at the moI am sitting outside of South Station writing this post — not posting it, mind you, as there is no wireless connection at the moment (oh please, mifi, work when we hook you up!), but writing it nevertheless.

We had planned to do a dry run of packing last night. I’m not entirely sure why, as once you’re packed you’re packed, but still, it would have been a good way to get a sense of how many bags we have, how much each person has to carry, etc. It didn’t happen, of course — way too many other more urgent things to do — the thought was there, however.

What we should have planned was do just do a dry run overall; that way, we might not have been quite so surprised when our ‘short’ trip to pick up our train tickets (the first stop on today’s errand train, so to speak) might not have come as such a surprise. Under the guise of making lemonade out of lemons, though, I am choosing to see the (not-yet-completed) task as an excellent way of preparing for the trip in oh, so many ways.

Just a few things I have picked up so far:

* We’re all excited about different things. (Although, I must say, I’m sure Kelley will share my excitement in realizing that I put the quarters in the meter exactly 10 minutes away from being too late! If he takes too much longer at the ticket window, I might need to put another couple quarters in.) For example, I am quite excited by the little things — like going in to pick up our tickets, coming up onto the train platform, heading into South Station… That doesn’t appear to be high on anyone else’s list. (And it’s a lot lower, now that it’s taken 75 minutes and counting.)

* Everything is going to take A LOT of time. (Did you read that part about picking up the tickets taking 75 minutes and counting? Yeah.)

* And, as a follow up to that, it is never a waste to bring every possible devise/time-waster/etc. there is. Two iPhones and a laptop aren’t enough when you are hanging around waiting for the apparently billion tickets to print. Nor is a cute baby quite as cute when he decides it’s way past his naptime and he doesn’t really feel like sleeping at the Amtrak station. And those TVs all around the station? This mom’s determination is that playing Angry Birds is a lot less detrimental to one’s health than learning to spot a suicide bomber. Well, o.k., granted — not spotting a suicide bomber isn’t good for anyone’s health. However, I will pray/hope/wish desperately that that doesn’t become an issue for us at any point in the near or distant future and instead focus on keeping the kids nightmare-free for at least the train part of the trip.

* It takes approximately 7 minutes before everyone who was well fed leading up until that point is “so hungry I might actually die right! here!” And train station food is ridiculously expensive. ($2 for the same fountain drink that costs half of that in the building next store?)

* That said, it takes about 2 additional minutes for the whining to drive any adult in the vicinity out of their skull. A $3 grilled-cheese-sandwich-to-go starts to look pretty damn good. (One that comes from a place called Cheeseboy? Sold.)

* Having that library book that never got returned to the school library (sorry to all my favorite school librarians out there — the good news is that we found it in the first place) still in the back seat of the car for while we’re waiting? Priceless.

So, the first agenda item when we get back home: pack the “stuff” bag — to do stuff, to snack stuff, and, possibly, to-medicate-mommy stuff. Then we can go from there.

It’s waaaayyyy too late, even for me, but I realized I hadn’t had a chance yet to post our itinerary and wanted to make sure to do so. Before I do, however, a quick note for anyone who might have what my doctor calls “sinister” purposes: our house will be occupied for the whole time we’re away so don’t go getting any ideas!

With that out of the way, here goes:

Beginning point: Boston, MA
To Portland, ME by car
To Albany, NY by car [thanks to ‘track work’; oh, Amtrak, please don’t let this be a sign of how the trip is going to go!]
To Chicago by train
To Grand Junction, CO by train
To Four Corners (Shiprock, NM?) by car
To Kayenta, AZ by car
To Grand Canyon by car
To Williams, AZ by car
To Las Vegas by car
To Kingman, AZ by car
To Glendale, CA by train
To Carlsbad, CA by car
To Anaheim, CA by car
To Ojai, CA by car
To Los Angeles by car
To Kansas City, MO by train
To Chicago by train
To Albany by train
To Saratoga by car
To Boston by car

And then can I have another vacation?

Wish us luck!